From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK.

September 4. The Rise of an Historian

Here’s a question for you.  Who is the author of this PhD?

“This research takes a chronological approach, in order to trace both the development of policy and of the role of the JIC within central government. It explores the major crises of the period: the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, the riots in East Berlin of June 1953 and the 1958-61 Berlin Crisis. Away from these crises, the thesis examines the picture that the JIC painted of Soviet intentions and capabilities in Eastern Germany and of the development of the two German nations.”

The answer is the second, or joint second, most powerful man in the British political system.  Should he wish so to do, the new Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service could describe himself as Dr. Simon Case.  At a certain point in his late twenties, he decided not to publish his thesis and pursue a university career, although he has retained an association with academic life and is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.  Instead he passed the exams for fast track entry into the civil service.  Thereafter he rose rapidly, until he fell out with the then chief Brexit negotiator in 2018, and after three months working on the Irish problem left for what was surely the dead-end job of Private Secretary to the Duke of Cambridge.  Now amidst the massacre of Permanent Secretaries, he has been recalled to active service. 

The question for us all is not so much his indecent youth, as his academic qualification.  Should we worry that the country is now being run by two historians in their forties?

A further degree gives only qualified assurance.  I spent my adult life in the company of men and women with a doctorate, and supervised a fistful of students seeking to obtain one.  I know whereof I speak.  Demonstrated command of what is usually a very narrow field of knowledge is not to be confused with any level of general intelligence or practicality.  I have worked with holders of PhDs whom you would not trust to write an online shopping list, much less unpack the groceries on arrival.   However, Case appears to have been an exception.  His supervisor Peter Hennessy has said that “He had a muscularity of intellect and masses of intellectual curiosity, plus precise organisational gifts which you don’t usually see in students.”  A historian who can tie his shoe-laces unaided is indeed a promising prospect.

The larger question resolves itself into a narrower issue: can he defeat ‘hard rain’ Cummings in the battle to politicise the civil service. 

There are two grounds for hope, beyond the general fact that after the brutal dismissal of his predecessor, he is unsackable for the time being (unless Johnson goes the full Trump and dismisses all his senior officials every year).

The first is that his academic mentor was not, as in Cummings’ case, Norman Stone, the most morally corrupt senior historian of the modern era (see Diary 27 April), but the upright Peter Hennessy (see Diary 23 June), the wisest and best informed of all historians of contemporary British politics.  And Hennessy backs him: “There is nothing flash or histrionic. He is one of those people you find every now and again in professional life who are so capable that you don’t mess around with them because they are a level above.”

The second is that the completion of the long, lonely road of a Ph.D in the humanities is at least a measure of persistence.  This is someone who has demonstrated a capacity to take the slow road to achieving his goal.  Cummings has never held any post for much more than a year and will be out of Number 10 before the end of 2021, for whatever cause.   Case will outlast the man who despises the civil service, and with any luck will turn out to be its creative defender.

*you can read the full thesis at: https://qmro.qmul.ac.uk/xmlui/handle/123456789/1495

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Build, Build, Imprison …

July 9.  Here’s a happy tweet from the Ministry of Justice: ‘We are building 4 new prisons to: Improve rehabilitation.  Help local economies.  Support construction industry to invest & innovate.  Part of our £2.5bn plan to create 10k additional prison places.  Delivering modern prisons & keeping the public safe’ (thanks to my colleague Ros Crone, for this). 

Each line has a helpful little illustration.  The one for the construction industry has a crane and jib which at first sight looks just like a gallows.  Next time perhaps.

The prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the last twenty-five years.  According to the figures for 3rd July, the current population of 79,522 is just over two thousand less than the ‘Usable Operational Capacity’.* The press release accompanying the tweet stresses that the new cells will be an ‘addition’ to the present stock, presumably, taking into account the need to replace prisons no longer fit for purpose.  They will be on top of already planned new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, which are to provide 3,360 places by 2023.  The announcement reflects an expectation that prison numbers will expand still further in the coming years.

Last February, the then Justice Secretary of State, David Gauke, announced a policy of abolishing custodial sentences of fewer than six months.  But he took the wrong view of Brexit, lost his Cabinet post, was thrown out of the Conservative Party and is now out of Parliament.  His junior minister in charge of prisons, Rory Stewart, stated that ‘We should be deeply ashamed as a society if people are living in filthy, rat-infested conditions with smashed-up windows, with high rates of suicide and violence.’**  He was quickly promoted to a Cabinet post at the Department for International Development, since abolished (do keep up!), before he was himself abolished, following Gauke’s trajectory out of office and out of Parliament because of his opposition to Brexit (and to Johnson personally).

As noted in my diary entry for June 2, the Ministry of Justice failed to implement an early undertaking to make an emergency reduction of 4,000 in a prison population threatened by mass infection in confined spaces.  Now cause and effect has been reversed.  The response to the virus demands growth not contraction.  The overriding need is to get the economy moving. The MoJ’s press release explains the broader purpose of the announced expansion: ‘Thousands of jobs will be created overall in the areas surrounding prisons during construction and once they have opened.  This will provide a major spur to local economies and support the construction industry to invest and innovate following the Coronavirus epidemic.’  

This is the new mantra of ‘build, build, build’ given form.  There seems no good reason why the Government should stop at 10,000.  We need to be world class at something, and setting aside the United States we are already well ahead of advanced countries in the proportion of the population in prison.   Each new prison takes undesirables off the streets, cures unemployment, boosts the private sector (only one of the new prisons is certain to be run by the state).  What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, according to a new report from the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee.***  It has just demanded that the government ‘should end the Covid-19 visiting ban on children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing those who are low risk… The committee said it had heard heartfelt evidence from children prohibited to visit their mothers during the outbreak which had exacerbated problems and posed a serious risk to an estimated 17,000 youngsters.’   It further called for the ‘early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children.’

The Committee is on the wrong side of history.

*Ministry of Justice, Official Statistics, Prison population figures: 2020.  July 3, 2020.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/prison-population-figures-2020

**Cited in House of Commons Justice Committee, Prison population 2022: planning for the future

*** https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2020/07/06/are-squalid-prison-conditions-and-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-breaching-human-rights/

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Permanence and Planning

Tom Scholar

June 17.  The clue is in the qualifier.  The heads of civil service departments in the UK are called ‘Permanent Secretaries.’  They are in charge of bodies of public employees whose tenure is independent of changes in the political complexion of government.

Two of the most senior members of this cadre, Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, and Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary at the all-powerful Cabinet Office and formerly at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were interviewed on Monday of this week by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on their preparations for a pandemic. 

Dominic Cummings said earlier this year that he wanted to recruit to the civil service “some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole.”  Scholar, the son of a knighted civil servant, fought his way out of the hell hole that was Dulwich College public school and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Chisholm struggled up from Downside public school and a degree (in history) from Merton College, Oxford.  They are in charge of sections of a civil service that has so far resisted attempts to politicise its membership.

The question is, what are the demonstrable gains from this oasis of institutional stability?  Over the last three years, there has been an obvious need for a locus of stable management of the affairs of a troubled state.  There have been three Chancellors of the Exchequer since 2016, one of whom, Philip Hammond, ended up having the whip withdrawn and retiring from Parliament.  The Department for Business has also had three heads, and the Cabinet Office, the central unit for co-ordinating the government machine, no less than five in four years.

What the PAC wanted to know, was whether the Permanent Secretaries had formed plans for the management of the economy during a pandemic, following the Cygnus simulation exercise in October 2016, which had modelled a scenario in which 50% of the population was infected by a flu-like virus.

It had cause to suppose that the civil service had a particular responsibility for this kind of planning.  The politicians were living day-to-day through the prolonged crisis set in motion by the Brexit referendum in June 2016.  Ideological commitment overwhelmed long-term thinking.  Ministers ate, drank and dreamed the pursuit of negotiating deadlines.  Cohorts of civil servants were taken from their normal duties to work with Brussels, but compared to their political masters, there remained wide areas of the government machine with the time and space to engage with medium and long-term futures.

The answer to the Committee’s question was that there had been no planning for the economic impact of a pandemic.  The measures taken once the real thing arrived were made up as the crisis deepened.  The chair of the PAC pronounced herself “quite dumbstruck” by this omission.  “Could you do us a follow-up note on the lack of economic planning for the pandemic?” she said.  Chisholm confirmed that he would. 

Countries which have done best in this crisis have been characterised not by their particular political complexion, but rather by their capacity to have in place and then fine-tune long-term plans for crisis management.  When the history of the UK’s lamentable performance is written, it will not be just the politicians who are in the firing line.

from Steph in London: transport or teleporting?

June 15. So, the shops can open tomorrow – it will be interesting to see how successful it will be and who will venture forth.

It made me think how we will get into London when it’s time to go – public transport being off limits for the foreseeable future. We made a conscious decision to run a small car several years ago. It is great for city living, can be parked in the smallest spaces and suits us…. Or it did suit us. Faced with no trains, UK holidays and car travel to Holland to see the children do we need to think about a different option – slightly larger, more powerful and more comfortable for long journeys? It goes against our environmental philosophy to think about it but we are all being pushed onto the road again. I’m not sure how that will play out.

We moved a huge pot containing a Cornus Kousa (dogwood) up to the top of the garden today to finish off the design in that area. Having time to get the whole garden replanted and organised has been a joy and for the first time since we moved in, we feel as if the garden is now ours. All we have to do now is keep everything alive.

Relationships with lockdown and Covid appears to have changed considerably. Is it fatigue or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to get us out of this mess? They certainly have lost the confidence of many- to the point that we no longer believe almost anything we are told. How could it have been handled better and why on earth wasn’t it?

 Answers on a postcard …

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Free and not free

June 11.   In the lockdown, I have tried to be sensible.  I have maintained my hours of work despite the absence of timetabled commitments.  I have written diary entries.  I have resisted drinking all of our not very capacious wine cellar.  My one besetting sin has been newspapers.  Deprived of hard copy I have set up online feeds from the Guardian, The Times (for an alternative view), the Financial Times (for hard evidence) and the New York Times (for the rest of the world).  Unlimited words, limitless time consumed.

Much of the knowledge thus gained has not illuminated my life.  Today I learn that there is a looming shortage of marmite (caused by a decline in beer brewing, who knew), and mounting anxiety about the closure of public lavatories.

Occasionally, however, there is a story that seems to encapsulate all that is now going wrong.  Yesterday’s online Times has an article headlined: ‘Lockdown eased to allow lonely to meet another household.’  It was part of the good news narrative that Johnson is trying to promote.  Day by day things are getting better.   In every other regard it brings no comfort.

First there is the nominative disarray I discussed yesterday; the confusion in this case between those living alone, and those who are lonely.  A third of UK households are occupied by one person.  Some of those are lonely; most are not.  All of them with grandchildren are probably missing them.

Second there is the small print.  Everyone can go and see their grandchildren except those in lockdown, which includes all those over seventy.  My wife and I, as it happens, are bang on the demographic average for the birth of our first grandchild (we were 63).  But now we have more years and more grandchildren.   Under the new regulations, we are too old to see them.  It’s as if the Government had announced with a fanfare that everyone was now free to play football, except those under thirty.

Third there is the surrounding argument.  The fifth paragraph of the same article reads:  ‘However, the government’s claim to have made the right decisions at the right time on the pandemic was dealt a severe blow when one of the architects of lockdown said Britain’s death toll could have been halved by imposing it a week earlier.’  What has collapsed in the last few weeks is not the infection rate but public trust in the entire official management of the crisis.

Every recent decision, whether about schools, testing, opening shops, allowing grandparents out of the house, quarantining international arrivals, has immediately been met by criticism, counter-argument and in some cases legal action.  The point is not so much the rights and Priti Patels of each issue, rather the belief that everyone is free to advance their own view and can find an ‘expert’ somewhere to back them up.  Deference towards politicians, and towards those who advise them, has disappeared.  In the early days there was a tendency to accept what we were told in the grave surroundings of No. 10.  We needed to believe that those with power were doing the right thing, and anyway it was difficult for amateurs fully to understand the science and the projections.  That comfort is no longer available.

The largest argument, referred to by the Times journalist, is about what was not done in February and March and how many tens of thousands of people died as a result.  The Government’s repeated hope that this kind of retrospective analysis could be left to a post-pandemic enquiry is in vain. 

We are all historians now.  And that is a measure of the trouble we are in.

from John Fielden in Tadcaster, UK: remote everything

The thought of members of Parliament staring into a screen and trying to have a civilised debate with 50 others on one screen and at least 100 others on 100 screens does challenge the mind.  Is this really the best way we can show the democratic basis of our governance? At the least, however, it will allow her majesty’s opposition to make long overdue challenges to the Government in the Commons on its two major practical failures to date – the take up of tests and the provision of timely PPE.

There could be some interesting constitutional issues about the set up; can the Commons in this state enact or endorse anything? Or is it merely a House of Challenging Questions? While it may be possible for its Select Committees to continue to do some good work, what actions can follow – merely Statutory Instruments?

The rash of remote or virtual activities is widespread. We hear of attempts to launch a huge virtual tea party to cheer everyone up. (This brings back memories of a tea party for 2,733 people organised by one of my ancestors to celebrate the passing of the Ten Hours Bill in 1848. It was held in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester at a cost of £946 – or £93,800 in today’s money). Many grandparents are having remote lunches or tea parties with their grandchildren. My wife and I, along I am sure with others, set up a table for a neat lunch on Easter Sunday with a daughter and two grandchildren 250 miles away and they did the same.

Family remote meetings can work, but the method does not succeed when transferred to television panel shows – as we see from the limp chemistry on programmes such as Have I got News for you. It just about works on outside programmes such as Countryfile where the animals and the countryside are the stars of the show.

Remote education has hit my grandchildren. Their summer term has started at four private schools in Banbury, Calne, Thirsk and Shrewsbury.  Or it should have.  The reality is that they are sitting at home online. I really wonder how their teachers who, presumably are novices at the art, have responded in the design of the material and the pedagogy. Have they passed Step 1 which simply puts text on the screen? [I spent five years of my life in the 1970s evaluating the National Development Programme for Computer Assisted Learning –NDPCAL – which was a major national programme exploring the use of computers in teaching and learning. Hence I have an interest in the matter).

The school fees for this novel experience are far from remote. My son who is chair of the governing body of one of the schools tells me that all private schools are charging 80% of the usual fees. He argues that almost all their costs are fixed and that he can only save on cooks, cleaners and the electricity bill. On the plus side all the teachers are full employed and fully paid. If they are using the potential of online learning effectively, they will certainly be overworked.